Music is Worthwhile In and Of Itself

Last week the PBS NewsHour ran a fascinating segment about how the human brain reacts to the stimulus of music. Upon reading the transcript online, I noticed various links to other sites discussing the non-musical applications of music in areas such a mental health, the development of math skills, and the activation of the part of the brain that causes one to experience pleasure from chocolate and sex.

While I find many of these studies to be interesting and illuminating to read, I do question how we as musicians and educators sometime use them to further our desires to keep music in the forefront of students’ lives. I know that, as a teacher, I have succumbed to that impulse to share such material with my students’ parents to prove the value of investing in music for their young. I have copied articles of findings relating higher test scores to students with musical backgrounds. I have shared anecdotal stories relating music training to economic success—almost half of my fellow undergraduate orchestra members went off to careers in medicine, engineering, and other sciences.

Why do we have to justify having music in our lives? More specifically, why do we try to prove its extra-musical worth in education, instead of valuing a musical education for its own inherent qualities? It seems there is this unsaid feeling in our culture that while it is okay to participate in music making, it is not okay to do so in place or ahead of something else. I know of more than one instance in which a teacher has had to allay parents’ fears that their children could wind up on the streets if they take jazz band instead of that extra AP class. Similarly, music educators are often forced by school boards and administrators to alter their curriculum in order to integrate other subjects, from math to history to chemistry.

Music is not the only victim, as other arts are also being pushed to the wayside. It seems that in our country’s frenzy to be competitive in the global marketplace, governments and institutions are madly advocating for the predominance of the core subjects in our schools with the naïve assumption that if our entire population is proficient in the basics, we can out-do the rest of the world in economic prosperity. However, are these efforts creating a generation that is lacking in awareness of its culture as a whole? Is it making a population of Wonder Bread workers, capable of doing their jobs, but not capable of thinking or participating in their communities beyond them? Just like the bread, they may have essential nutrients, but lack any of the real richness, texture, and complexity needed to create a satisfying meal.

So, while I applauded the study of music and its relevance to other fields, I do worry how this data is used outside the respective research from which it comes. History has precedents for using science to dictate social policy. If we are not careful, how we musicians apply these studies to our work may actually hurt our standing in the culture, for it can unconsciously perpetuate the view that music cannot stand on its own two feet.

6 thoughts on “Music is Worthwhile In and Of Itself

  1. rskendrick

    maybe it’s about metrics?
    I face these challenges a lot in writing grant applications for new music concerts – how do you quantify something that is intangible like ‘listeners will raise their appreciation of music by local composers’ or ‘the concert will nourish the audience’s soul’. These goals sound great to the initiated, but to the uninitiated, which face it, most of the public is, they sound like lofty aims that can’t be measured. So, as smart practicioners, we’ve learned to adjust our approaches to those that can be measured. Statistics like (and I’m just making these up to make a point) 65% of students that participate in music do better in math, or students that study an instrument are twice as likely to be accepted by an ivy league institution, are tangible results, that most people can grasp…and avoid ideas that are harder to grasp like ‘more well rounded’, ‘more culturally aware’, etc.

    On another note, this a great country, but often its residents view things in terms of dollars and cents (no great revelation, I know). I work a day job in the business world, and several years ago when I first started, I was explaining to my boss about my composing. She kept trying to relate by saying, “I see, so in several years, you’ll be making a great deal of money at this.” And I kept trying to explain in umpteen ways, that I was just doing it to improve my abilities as a composer and trying to get performances. It was a really foreign concept to her…in fact so foreign, I politely gave up trying to explain it to her. So, you’ve got a huge segment of the society that thinks this way, and as music teachers, we’ve learned to tap into that in stressing the benefits of musical education. You do this, the odds are, you’ll make more money down the road. While it’s not ideal (and so many of us our idealists) it is very practical and realistic…and to some extent, helps music education survive in today’s ‘money grubbing’ landscape.

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  2. philmusic

    Perhaps you are not aware of just how just precarious arts education funding is in the United States. Since arts educators are not in charge of the school districts or NCLB we don’t make the policies that rule us. We are forced to prove again and again our value and worth in order to keep our jobs alive. Here we preach to the choir but the rest of the time we deal with administrators, principals, and political leaders who can be uninformed and unhelpful.

    Phil’s Page

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  3. CM Zimmermann

    Jean-Francois Lyotard wrote something along the lines of: ‘schooling no longer delivers citizens; at best it delivers professionals.’

    The educational system in this country is a massive process of socialization, if not indoctrination, employed as a means of control. We view education as training to get a socially accetable job (meaning that there is a clear idea of its immediate purpose and that its worth can be easily quantified), which in turn allows us to become good little consumers fragmented from concerns of empathy, cooperation, solidarity, citizenship…

    You make some strong points in your post, however I am wondering why any of this is really surprising. Afterall, critiques of capitalism have been understanding these issues since the early 19th century.

    Keep at it.

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  4. nathanbibb

    While I admit that leaving during a performance is extremely distracting and disrespectful, especially during a quiet piece (I found even loud breathing was distracting during the Morton Feldman 80th birthday concert in October), this makes me think of how different the “new music” experience is here at the turn of the 21st century compared to a hundred years ago.

    Didn’t the premiere of Le Sacre du Printemps inspire not just exodus, but actual rioting? Where are the boos, hisses and thrown fruit of earlier centuries? Although this kind of behavior is certainly disrespectful, it at least communicates some sort of passion about the music, even if it is passionate hatred. Leaving in middle of a piece can only be attributable to vague indifference.

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  5. John Kennedy

    Perhaps I am biased, but how many other disciplines are there besides playing music that so thoroughly integrate deeply-refined physical skill, advanced intellectual activity, and emotional expression? That as a group activity at its highest levels, engages extremely subtle and minute degrees of adaptation in its communication systems? That can in the now, reconjure the dream of a creator from hundreds of years ago? Or that can also in the now, be summoned as a complete skill-set for a spontaneous and impermanent creative act?

    Music as a whole is one of the very finest and most loving things human beings have together accomplished, and as a practice requires the complete person in a way few other things do. This is the message, and to the best we are able we shouldn’t have to compromise it to justify why music matters.

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